Out of This (First) World

Dear Reader,

From 30 October to 3 November, I was in Port-au-Prince with Team Tassy. You can read my first full-length post on that experience here on my travel blog. Right here, we’re gonna think a little deeper.

You’ve no doubt seen things about checking your privilege, appreciating what you have, the value of serving those less fortunate and the like. We know we’re supposed to not take our lifestyle for granted, but we’re bombarded with images of poverty and we have become desensitized. Here’s the difference between seeing poverty and being in that place – when you’re in an impoverished area, those people you’re accustomed to seeing through a screen are looking back at you. It’s no longer asymmetrical, asynchronous, unilateral… It’s in real time, right now, with you breathing the same air.

When I came back late Monday night from an exhausting experience at the Miami airport, I shed my travel clothes, called one of my best friends, and just talked. He asked all the right questions, and that was really my first experience processing what I had seen and done. In the midst of this discussion, I noticed that my bed looked wrong. I couldn’t figure out what was different about it. Nevertheless, I wrapped up the conversation in favor of enjoying the first proper shower I’d had in five days and then crawled into bed. I realized in that instant what was different – my bed now had a memory foam topper. My bed was going to be infinitely better than what I had in Haiti, but now it was a virtual paradise. And I was overwhelmed with a first world privilege.

Even so, I spun this out as a problem. I felt guilty for being able to enjoy this, for becoming spoiled by this. The next day was election day, so I got out of bed and ready for the day. In the moment when I was applying eye liner, I thought ‘this is my first world face.’ During the days prior, I hadn’t given my appearance a second thought. Doing much else other than applying sunscreen was silly. Now that I could look at myself and choose to apply a colored product to my eye, I thought that this practice was silly. How odd that I can buy this product and choose to put this thing on my face because I like the way it looks. Not only that, but I was then walking out of my house to go vote. I can vote! I have a say in who governs me and the state. My polling place is within walking distance from my house, which is also within walking distance to an Aldi’s and public transportation! AND the public transportation is safe and clean. I was awash with all these layers of fortuitous privilege of living where I do.

Click the image to see more pictures
Click the image to see more pictures

Ian Rosenberger, the CEO and founder of Team Tassy, hosted a TEDx Talk earlier this year in Pittsburgh. His main point is that poverty is not about an absence of wealth, but of dignity. I saw this in action when we were in Haiti, working with the families. Team Tassy is about “unleash[ing] the inherent power in every person to eliminate global poverty,” and in this trip, I learned that I have this power. I wouldn’t have even thought prior to this experience that I would ever have an experience like this, or that I had the ability to really impact someone’s life in this way.

To put this experience in its own little box is easy, to shelve it away to look upon fondly when I want to reflect on the good work we did. Similarly, it is easy to fall into the trap that looks down on┬áthose who are victims of natural disasters or difficult economic situations. We look at them as less educated, not hard workers, or hopeless. When we introduce a language barrier, we hear the other community as less intelligent people because they speak in broken English. But imagine if you could hear them in their own words, or converse with them on their terms. You would discover a more rich, complete and thoughtful picture. Use this map as an example – our language is our lens, and we apply it to every country on the planet. But that’s not the same lens they apply to the US. In our own language, we think differently.

What experiences shape you? What lenses or places are you carrying with you?

Thanks for reading,
Ellen

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